The Bitter Taste of One’s Own Medicine

It is the duty of a responsible journalist to report the news as impartially as they can, but having covered the Iraq war as an analyst for the Defense Department, it is difficult to read news about the ongoing conflict in Syria without feeling a distinct sense of schadenfreude.  Not about the plight of the over a million refugees displaced by the crisis, of course, or regarding Syria’s beleaguered population just trying to get by while bullets fly overhead.  Many of these refugees are likely refugees from Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq, who are once again forced to flee for fear of their lives and live in squalor in poorly-run refugee camps.  Unfortunately, getting food and other resources to these camps is difficult in the best of times without having to add in the complication of ongoing guerilla-style warfare, so let’s not excoriate the aid agencies for failing to support these families.  However, let’s also think carefully before we devote time and resources to send aid that will or is almost certainly getting diverted to any one of a number of poorly understood rebel groups (remember Somalia? The vast majority of the well-intentioned aid in Somalia was diverted to the warlords and only served to strengthen their control and prolong the conflict).[1] [2]  Not that this isn’t happening in Syria already, according to some reports.[3]

No, my schadenfreude in this instance is aimed directly at the Syrian government itself (I’m looking at you, Assad!).  Having spent years fueling the conflict in Iraq by sending weapons, trainers, and insurgents across the porous border between Syria and Iraq, Syria is now finding itself the target of similar efforts.  Not just from Iraq, though the same Sunni tribes that took aid from Syria to fight the US and the Shia majority government in Iraq has proven just as willing to take aid to fight Syria’s Shia majority government (Islamic militants are SO ungrateful). [4]  Syria’s Kurdish population, which has been a thorn in the side of the neighboring Turkey and Iraq that Syria refused to help address, has turned against the Syrian government as well.  Internationally, countries are lining up to provide aid to the Syrian rebel groups; while Western countries are hesitating, fearing the rise of Islamic groups armed with “Made in America” missiles,[5] Saudi Arabia and others have had no such compunction.[6]  Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran also hasn’t made it many friends, though that partnership and Syria’s patron-client relationship with terrorist group Hezbollah are two of the few things that has protected Syria from more aggressive intervention from the international community.

Syria’s conflict was sparked by the populist movements of the 2010 Arab Spring that started in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East, most famously to Libya and Egypt.   For a while, Syria teetered on the knife’s edge, trying to find the right combination of appeasement and security crackdowns to calm the storm.  When that failed, Syria unfortunately fell to the side of extreme security crackdowns, likely taking a page from Assad Sr when he leveled entire parts of a rebellious city in 1982, killing anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 civilians.  Since then the situation has been escalating, and many fear that it will spread instability throughout the region.

Unfortunately, that has already happened.  When fights break out along the borders with Turkey[7], Iraq, and now Palestine (as evinced by the seizure of UN peacekeepers from the border along the Golan Heights[8]), the instability has spread.  Spillover into Lebanon or Palestine is almost inevitable.  Israel’s general defensiveness and touchy trigger finger certainly won’t help defuse the situation, especially if Syria or Iran attempts to use Israel as a hostage to the West’s good behavior, as North Korea does frequently with South Korea.  Indeed, one of the few blessings in this conflict is the lack of (recent) threatening language coming out of Iran or Hezbollah…so far.


[1] Gettleman, Jeffrey and Neil MacFarquhar, “Somalia Food Aid Bypasses the Needy, UN Study Says.” 9 March, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/10/world/africa/10somalia.html.

[2] For a good analysis of the problems inherent to providing aid in conflict zones, read Sarah Bailey’s commentary at the Overseas Development Institute: http://www.odi.org.uk/opinion/4776-somalia-food-aid-diversion

[3] McTighe, Kristen. “Syrian Insurgents Say Aid Isn’t Getting Where it Needs to Go,” 7 March 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/world/middleeast/syrian-insurgents-say-aid-isnt-getting-where-it-needs-to-go.html?ref=syria

[4] Adnan, Duraid and Rick Gladstone, “Massacre of Syrian Soldiers in Iraq Raises Risk of Widening Conflict,” 4 March 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/world/middleeast/fighting-escalates-in-syrian-city-opposition-says.html?ref=syria&_r=0

[5] Abbas, Mohammad, and Sonya Hepinstall. “Germany Says EU Right not to arm Syria rebels, risks too high.” 7 March 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/07/us-syria-crisis-germany-idUSBRE9260Z620130307

[6] Gordon, Michael. “Kerry Says US Backs Mideast Efforts to Arm Syrian Rebels.” 5 March, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/world/middleeast/kerry-says-administration-backs-mideast-efforts-to-arm-syrian-rebels.html?ref=world

[7] McDonnell, Patrick. “Tension escalates along Turkey-Syria Border” 14 October 2012.  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/14/world/la-fg-turkey-syria-escalate-20121015

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